Throughout the history of the world, some of the largest and most extravagant architectural wonders have been built as homage to the divine. Mighty temples, grand mosques, and the monumental cathedrals of the middle ages are all testaments to the motivating power that religion can have. This was especially true in ancient Egypt. In the dynasties of the Old Kingdom, the ancient Egyptian religious beliefs brought together a society to build some of the greatest structures on earth, the great pyramids at Giza.
For the ancient Egyptians, their religious beliefs were a central component of their daily lives. An important part of these beliefs involved life after death. The ancient Egyptians believed that while the body was dead, the person lived on in the after life. In the afterlife, the person required all of the objects and amenities that they required in their earthly life. For this reason, many were buried with at least some rudimentary objects for use in the afterlife. Another focal point of the ancient Egyptian’s religious beliefs was the immortal quality of the Pharaoh. The pharaoh was human, but a living deity at the same time. The pharaoh was the Egyptian people’s intermediary with the gods. As such, he was worshipped and honored as a god by the Egyptian people. The pharaoh controlled the rise and fall of the Nile and therefore, their livelihoods. Therefore, their worship and loyalty towards the pharaoh was due to the fact that their lives and well-being depended on him.
It was not just the pharaoh that the ancient Egyptians deified. Most forces of nature and natural phenomenon were explained as the incarnations or actions of gods. This included many animals, the rise and fall of the sun, and almost every aspect of the natural world. Thus worship and honor of this multitude of gods was a central and influential aspect of the average Egyptians daily life. Everything from their writing systems, their government, to their art and language was focused around their religion. This is why throughout the three thousand year history of ancient Egypt, the building of monuments and temples to the gods and their earthly representatives, the pharaohs, was a top priority.
It is no wonder then that the many thousands of workers willingly worked together to build these great pyramids. It is often said that advances in technology drives society, but in all actuality in many cases it is societal conditions and attitudes that drives the development of technology. This is definitely the case in ancient Egypt. The emphasis and pervasiveness of religion in ancient Egyptian society was the motivation for the development of many technological achievements, including the building of the pyramids.
The pyramid provided a tomb for the pharaoh. It also housed all of the objects and things that the pharaoh would need to continue living a comfortable and successful life in the afterlife. The pyramid shape was significant in that it provided an avenue for the buried pharaoh to ascend into the heavens and join the gods. Therefore the construction of the pyramid was important to both the pharaoh and the common Egyptian.
The Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built for the pharaoh King Khufu, was built by several tens of thousands of workers over a period of several decades. These builders were not slaves. They were paid workers, whether conscripted or volunteer; they believed in the work that they were doing. Many were simply peasant farmers who worked during the inundation period when the Nile was flooding the valley. Others were permanent skilled workers. Regardless, these workers camped near the pyramid and were paid, fed, and given medical attention if necessary.
The Great Pyramid at Giza is truly a masterpiece and a formidable feat of engineering. When built, it stood over 480ft tall, has sides approximately 755.8 ft long, and contains over two million blocks that each weigh two and a half tons on average. With a total volume of about 2.5 million cubic meters, the great pyramid is dwarfed only by the Great Wall of China in size of human undertaking. The pyramid is also almost perfectly square, with miniscule error. In addition, it is oriented to face the four cardinal directions almost perfectly. These precise measurements, among others, suggest that the ancient Egyptians understood a fair amount of basic mathematics and geometry in order to build these wonders.
Many theories for how these pyramids were built have been put forth and they range from the supernatural to the extraterrestrial. The less ridiculous theory, and the one more widely accepted among academics, involves the use of brick and dirt ramps up which these large stones were hauled and set in place. Some stones were quarried close by, others many miles away and floated down the Nile. These large stones were moved with little if any use of the wheel.
In today’s society, it is easy to get large amounts of information about just about anything. I did a fair amount of reading and research about the pyramids and ancient Egypt in general before we went on our trip. I read about how they were built, what they were for, how old they were, how big they were. I saw pictures of them in books and on the internet from just about every angle. None of this however, prepares you for the sheer size and magnitude of the pyramids when you see them up close. Standing at the base of the pyramid and looking up makes you dizzy and appreciative of the extraordinary human effort that went into building them. Even the size of each individual block awed me. The blocks around the base were almost as tall as I was, and how many of these blocks did the pyramid contain?
Once I was able to wrap my head around the enormity of the Great Pyramid, I began to get the same impression that I got in the gold laden cathedrals of Spain and the older gothic cathedrals of northern France. Only a truly sincere and strong belief and desire to worship and praise could provide the impetus to build such marvelous structures. Whether an ancient Egyptian Nile valley farmer or a medieval peasant, they believed that laboring on these monuments would somehow assure them a ticket to a comfortable afterlife.
In ancient Egypt, the building of the pyramids also brought the country together. It was not only a marvel of engineering and building might, but also an incredible feat of organization and administration. The sense of community and devotion to the king and the various gods brought the people together to build these wonders, the only of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World to have survived. The pyramids were not only a religious monument and tomb for their all powerful leader, but a symbol of the solidarity and might of Egypt.
Mertz, B. (2007). Temples, Tombs & Hieroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt. New York: Harper Collins.
Shaw, I. (2009). Building the Great Pyramid. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ ancient/egyptians/great_pyramid_01.shtml
White, Blake L. (2003). Ancient Egypt Provides an Early Example of How a Society’s Worldview Drives Engineering and the Development of Science. Strategic Technology Institute. Retrieved from http://www.strategic-tech.org/images/Egyptian_Engineering _and_Culture.pdf.